Fulton County officials estimate it will cost $1.7 billion to replace the overcrowded Fulton County Jail that opened in 1989. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
A severely overcrowded Fulton County jail has become so dilapidated that inmates are able to fashion makeshift weapons by reaching into the walls, removing broken flooring, electrical coverings, and broken pipes, according to staff from Fulton County Sheriff’s Office.
A state Senate public safety subcommittee heard testimony from supervisors with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday about a rash of inmate stabbings and a cache of weapons confiscated from inmates that offer a glimpse into the harrowing conditions inside a west Atlanta jail that is consistently overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded.
Representatives of the state association of sheriffs and a national jail organization also testified about the problems local law enforcement agencies across the nation are facing in operating jails safely and effectively.
So far this year, 1,293 stabbings had been reported in Fulton’s jails, nearly 1,200 shanks discovered, 922 assaults committed by inmates on other inmates, and 68 incidents where staff were assaulted. As of Wednesday, Fulton’s main jail housed 1,928 inmates, but only 1,875 beds were available since 308 beds can’t be used due to structural issues with the building, according to the sheriff’s office.
Currently, the sheriff’s office is responsible for approximately 2,900 inmates who were taken into custody by Fulton County deputies, police departments from more than a dozen municipalities, MARTA, campus police, and state and federal law enforcement agencies.
One of the largest corrections departments in the Southeast, Fulton’s corrections department consists of the Rice Street jail and three annexes.
“Each of the nearly 3,000 detainees that we have in our custody has his or her own personality stresses, court cases, family, loved ones, medical and mental health. needs, educational requirements and limitations,” said Amelia Joiner, chief counsel to Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat. “And sadly, many have their own criminal affiliations or gang affiliations. The Fulton County Jail is also a city that never ever sleeps. The doors are open 24 hours a day seven days a week, 365 days per year. Running a facility of this size is a Herculean task.”
The legislative hearing on Thursday was the first in a series of anticipated meetings for a Senate committee investigating conditions at Fulton’s 901 Rice Street jail and several other detention facilities managed by the Fulton sheriff’s office. The panel will also examine how cases are prosecuted and the impact of crime in Atlanta and surrounding communities.
The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating Fulton’s main jail, which when it opened in 1989 was designed to hold up to 1,600 inmates. So far this year, there have been 10 reported inmate deaths, a wave of violence, deteriorating building conditions and not enough beds for inmates to sleep in. The jail gained national notoriety in August as the site of surrender for former President Donald Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the other 17 original defendants in the Fulton County racketeering case charging interference in Georgia’s 2020 election.
State lawmakers are expected to resume the battle in 2024 over conflicting crime reduction strategies like mandatory cash bail and stiffer sentencing supported by tough-on-crime stances taken by GOP leaders. Democratic legislators have continued to support the strategies of former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform that argues that rehabilitation services, not jail time, are the best method of reducing recidivism.
Concerns over staffing, mental health of inmates
Sheriff’s offices across the country find it difficult to hire and retain correctional officers for a stressful job that often hires people with no law enforcement experience, said Tate McCotter, who is the executive director for the National Institute for Jail Operations.
McCotter said that most local jails run on skeleton staffing, which is the bare minimum level that can keep a jail open 24 hours a day.
Experts on Thursday also referenced how the dynamics of housing inmates in confined spaces shifted because of the heightened public health concerns of the pandemic and a growing backlog of cases that’s left more people locked up if they can’t afford to pay bail.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said that over the last decade the number of probationers re-arrested on unrelated charges has increased in Georgia.
“Many people should be on probation but there are a lot of people who simply cannot function in the free society on probation,” he said.
Norris also said that too often jails are functioning more like state prisons.
“A lot of the problem we have in county jails has to do with these inmates who shouldn’t be in county jail,” he said. “They’re being sentenced in county jails as misdemeanor offenders and judges are putting them in jail. Or they’re felony offenders who have been detained in county jail for (such) a lengthy amount of time prior to going to trial, that there isn’t much time left on their sentence.”
County jails are often turned into de facto mental health facilities because sheriff’s offices must take everyone in custody who is arrested for criminally indictable offenses, said Bill Hallsworth, director of jail and court services for the sheriff’s association.
McCottor cited the national statistics that estimated seven out of 10 people taken into custody at a jail suffer from a mental illness and roughly 38% of inmates suffer from serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
The Fulton jail currently houses approximately 1,800 inmates who are taking psychotropic medications for mental illness.
Joiner said that the Fulton sheriff’s office has been underfunded by the Fulton County Commission, which in 2023 budgeted $64.6 million for jail operations, including $28 million for staffing. A vendor provided medical and mental health services for $35 million, while another $6 million is spent annually on jail building maintenance and repairs and specialty cleaning services.
Another $7 million is spent annually on food for 9,000 meals provided daily at the jail.
“The fiscal impact of the overcrowding has caused an increase in medical costs, food costs,” Joiner said. “We’ve had to contract and hire some supplemental security. Our staff has to spend more of their off time supporting the jail and making sure that it is as safe as we can have.
“The sheriff’s office is generally underfunded. And sometimes obtaining funding can be contentious,” Joiner said.
Due to overcrowding, the sheriff’s office announced in April plans to relocate 600 inmates to other county correctional facilities for about $40,000 per day.
The Fulton County Commission is considering solutions that include building a new jail complex with an estimated price tag of $1.7 billion.
Joiner said that Labat has taken a number of measures to improve retention and recruiting efforts for the corrections department since he began his term as sheriff in January 2021. It has included making Fulton jail staff the highest paid in the state, with starting salaries for deputies at $60,000 and detention officers at $54,000, along with a sign-on bonus for new employees.
A number of initiatives have been taken to reduce overcrowding in Fulton jails, including the creation of an inmate advocacy unit that has reviewed 10,980 cases since June. The unit’s efforts so far have led to the successful release of 259 inmates while also scheduling more than 180 court hearings.
The sheriff’s office has also partnered with the Fulton solicitor general and the district attorney’s office to negotiate agreements between prosecutors and defendants on the amount of bond and other conditions to be released from jail.
Roswell Republican Sen. John Albers said the committee will continue to examine various factors such as staffing levels at county detention centers.
“One of the takeaways from this meeting is as we try to assemble these different data points of what the (jail) capacity is, how many folks are in there, how long they are (incarcerated) and what’s the breakdown of mental illness,” he said.
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